The Passing Spectacle Vol. VII – No. 3

Volta Reconsidered:  Many Changes for the Better

Cirque du Soleil has always had the policy of tinkering with their shows after they have had their premiere in their hometown of Montreal.  A show’s director will stay with it for an extended period of time to incorporate any chances he deems necessary as the production continues its performance schedule around the globe.  In the case of Volta it has been the writer/director is Bastien Alexandre.  But nothing I have seen in all my years watching Cirque du Soleil compares to the mammoth overhaul that has taken place with Volta since it opened nearly two years ago.

The opening segment has been completely restaged with an entirely new approach to getting the story under way.  One act has been moved from next to closing into the number two spot in the first act.  Another act has been dropped altogether and replaced by a significant addition.  The rather lame jungle gym ensemble piece has been replaced by a revolving wall trampoline act that has required junking a lot of apparatus and replacing it with an even more complex piece of equipment.

The major clown has been replaced, although most of his gags have remained the same.  I wish I could find the name of the new youngster who has taken over the comedy and made it his own by virtue of his movements and facial reactions without exaggerated makeup or costuming.  This is a bit of irony for a Cirque show where heavy makeup is the rule for just about everyone.  Here the clown wears no discernible makeup at all.   The amount of clowning has also been reduced to just two segments whereas there were formerly several more.

The BMX group of bikers had two appearances in the original version.  They now have one.  The result is that an expensive elevator system is put to limited and somewhat irrelevant use.

The second half of the  show is still pretty much a muddle with seemingly irrelevant appearances by a hair hang artist and a baton twirler.  Worst of all the brilliant dance sequence that should be the dramatic highpoint of the second half has yet to establish the context that would make it so.  It seems to me such an effect  could be accomplished rather easily.  The dance is supposed to reveal the central character’s self-awareness and acceptance after being encouraged by what the press kit identifies as the Free Spirits.  The woman who keeps circling the central character on roller skates could pull off his drab gray rags and reveal a costume like all the other Free Spirits seen in the show.  That would provide the symbolism needed to establish the dance as a celebration of independence.

We see this character earlier in the show having just received a bicycle as a gift and playing with it to the delight of his mother in a very sweet and effective pas de deux.  Here there is no mistaking what is going on within the character and between him and his mother.

The best acts in the show remain the opening rope jumping display, the unicycle act, the aforementioned pas de deux and the exciting hoop diving exhibition.

There’s no question that all the changes have improved the show enormously, but there is more it could do to tighten the second half and help explain what is happening to the central character.  If we don’t cheer for him, what is the point of having him in the show at all?


Air Play Almost Floats Away

Balloons have an almost mystical ability to enchant children of all ages.  Just observe the electric infusion of energy at any circus performance when it is necessary to cover a rigging change and a bunch of beach ball-sized balloons are let loose over the heads of the audience.  Almost nothing else in the performance matches that level of excitement. Further proof was recently on display at the New Victory Theater in New York City in an hour long dissertation on balloons called Air Play

There are many, many  (more than can be counted) balloons in this divertissement created by the team of Seth Bloom and Christina Gelsone who work under the “nom de clown” of Acrobuffos.  They  were able to develop this unique entertainment through  a workshop at the New Victory, part of its LabWorks program.  The work was inspired by the kinetic sculptor Daniel Wurtzel, who in various installations sends huge swaths of colorful silk swirling in the air.

There are the occasional swaths red or yellow silks in Air Play as well, but mainly there are all those balloons and two human beings, the previously noted Bloom and Gelsone.  The humans are all but ignored during the course of the balloons’ performance, which is really too bad because the two give off suggestions every now and then of being quite charming people to spend some time with.   But they have a huge amount of visual razzle dazzle, much of it nothing short of gorgeous, to compete with as the audience (mostly kids) can barely contain their eagerness to get their hands on one or another of th0se floating bits of  bright color that keep wafting just out of reach.

In focusing on conquering all the complex technical issues that make the performance with their balloons possible, the creative team has tended to lose sight of who they are—two clowns.  There are some tentative moves towards establishing their characters and some sort of relationship between them early on in the proceedings, but these tend to be rather subtle and easily lost in the midst of the profusion of visual and aural stimuli.  The balloons are often manipulated to the rhythms of classical music pieces.

Toward the end of the work we get a somewhat stronger hint that there is something involving recognizable human emotion going on  between the two human participants, as if to give the work some form, but just what it is remains ill-defined.   Which is too bad, because if this human element were more strongly established, this would be an absolutely wondrous piece  of theatre.

The two aspects of the performance, the technical and the human, merge when the two clowns get themselves inside two of the biggest balloons, and we get a sense of their personalities and their clown persona.  It is, at least from an adult stand point, the most rewarding part of the show, and the squeals of delight from the younger contingent suggest it is working for them as well.  At this point we can only  wish there was more of this kind of collaboration.

Clowns and balloons—potentially—perfect  together.

Credits:  created by Seth Bloom and Christina Gelsone in collaboratin with Daniel Wurtzel.  West Hyler, director; Todd Alan Little, technical director; Flora Vassar, stage manager and lighting supervisor; Jeanne Koenig, lighting designer;  Seth Bloom and Christina Gelsone, sound design and props; Ashley Dunn Gatterdam, costume designer; Phil Ingle, additional sound designer; air sculptures in collaboration with Daniel Wurtzel.   Presented at the New Victory Theater, West 42nd St, New York, New York.


Juggling Resists Expanding Boundaries

Greg Kennedy, who gained prominence with his unique juggling act in Cirque du Soleil’s Totem, opens his own show, Spherus,  on a brightly lighted stage by juggling a bowling ball, a hatchet and a bean bag, which he acknowledges is old school juggling.  On the other hand, he says, he is part of “the modern juggling movement, whose aim it is to expand boundaries.”   That is the last we shall hear from him for the duration of the hour he and his two female assistants will hold the stage.  Through it all there is nary a hint of his personality, and figuratively speaking, we don’t get  to see very much of him physically either.   The bright light of the opening segment gives way to a level of lighting that turns the performers into mere shadows of themselves.

Instead there  is all that boundary expanding juggling or what we can make of it in this low level lighting.  In that respect the problem with this production is the same as Air Play, discussed above.  It’s all about technique and technology and little or nothing about human connections.

The problem here is compounded by the fact that the juggling is often considerably less than awe-inspiring. In Totem Kennedy impressed us with his ball bouncing work from inside a tall cylindrical cone, which was something we hadn’t seen before.   A great deal of what he does here is a variation on ball bouncing using a variety of props: a transparent basin, a wheel, a wooden wedge and finally that remarkable cone.  In between these he and his female partners wave large swatches of colorful fabric about, manipulate lighted devil sticks and twirl long ribbons.   All of this is played out under  the same level of dimness, while various lighted forms flash across the backdrop.  Instead of adding to the effect these projections add an element of distraction that is not always helpful in appreciating what is going on.

The most serious mistake is weaving a set of steel balls through his fingers.  This is the equivalent of a magician doing card tricks in Madison Square Garden.  Although he takes this segment downstage as far as he can get, the dim lighting all but destroys any effect he might have otherwise achieved.

As the hour wears on Kennedy introduces some sculptural  pieces whose long tentacles have lighted tips which he sends twirling around each other.  It does introduce some variety, but the effect is somewhat less than exciting.

Throughout the performance the canned music provides little help in changing the rhythm or dynamics of the performance.  At one point Kennedy and his partners bounce long, hollow tubes along the floor for some aural variety.

In another attempt at inserting some variety into the program the two girls climb matching white silks in which they wind and unwind themselves.  Later they perform together on a lyra.  More light might have helped make these a bit more interesting.

The performance’s high points are two pieces he manipulates with considerable more interest.  In one he has a series of hinged squares that he turns into a variety of shapes.   His most amazing performance involves a series of nesting boxes which he first unpacks until he is down to a very tiny box.  He then stacks them atop one another at what appears to be  45 degree angles.  Once that structure is complete he releases the bottom box and the entire pyramid collapses into the original single box.   Very effective.

This performance was seen at Princeton University’s McCarter Theater, in Princeton, NJ, where it played a single performance, a matinee and provided no program of any sort to identify credits.